Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized this week for using storm-damaged and flooded Puerto Rico as a background while he showed off “Facebook Spaces,” the company’s new virtual reality project.
The mea culpa, which was posted on Facebook, came after some users complained that Zuckerberg’s actions were inconsiderate and poorly executed, as people on the island continue to struggle to rebuild the community following Hurricane Maria.
“One of the most powerful features of [virtual reality] is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world,” Zuckerberg wrote a day after the complaints surfaced. “Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
On Monday night, Zuckerberg launched a livestream on Facebook to promote Facebook Spaces, which essentially transforms people into 3D cartoon versions of themselves, and then transports them to remote locations they may otherwise never get to explore. Facebook Spaces relies on virtual reality head sets, like the Oculus Rift, in order to work.
During the demonstration, Zuckerberg’s avatar teleported to Puerto Rico alongside the company’s head of social virtual reality, Rachel Franklin, to survey the damage caused by the hurricane.
“One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” Zuckerberg says in the video. “It feels like we are really here in Puerto Rico.”
At another point in the demonstration, Zuckerberg’s avatar high-fives Franklin’s, as flood waters and destroyed homes are visible in the background. The pair laughs as they marvel at the fact that they are “together” as avatars, but in real life they’re in separate places. Zuckerberg also appears to forget the name of the hurricane, and stalls before eventually saying “hurricanes.”
Zuckerberg, who famously dropped out of Harvard University to build his company, also described the ability to witness different parts of the world in cartoon form as “magical.”
Zuckerberg had said before he launched the demonstration that his intention was to discuss the company’s partnership with NetHope and the American Red Cross “to restore connectivity and rebuild communities” on the island.
The promotional experiment was supposed to enthrall users — and in many cases it did — offering people a window into the future of technology.
But the way in which it was executed fell flat for some, with people accusing Zuckerberg of using the devastation caused by the hurricane as an opportunity to flaunt his company’s creation.
“Really!!!!!!! Use somewhere else as an example,” one person wrote. “Not a disaster area under serious circumstances.”
In one response to a user who criticized Facebook Spaces, Zuckerberg said that participants in virtual reality feel a “sense of empathy” that’s not apparent to people watching them online.
“That’s something we’ll need to work on over time,” Zuckerberg said.
The demonstration came a few days ahead of Oculus Connect 4, this year’s virtual reality conference. As of Wednesday, the video of Zuckerberg’s cartoon self had been viewed more than 1.8 million times.
Not everyone was critical of Zuckerberg using Puerto Rico as a backdrop. Some users thanked the wunderkind for showing the world, in real-time, the damage caused by the hurricane.
“Thank you Mark Zuckerberg,” one person wrote. “Please, please help guide the rebuilding efforts to this vibrant, cool place.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.